Let's Sue Harvard and End Illegal Preferences in College Admission

06/02/2015 07:35 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

Several weeks ago a number of organizations joined in a lawsuit against Harvard University, claiming that Harvard discriminates against Asian and Asian-American students by setting quotas and/or restricting the number admitted. An Asian-advocacy group called Students for Fair Admission was plaintiff in a similar action last November against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

These lawsuits are in response to so-called "holistic" admission practices that take multiple factors into consideration in admission decisions. Plaintiffs' arguments are essentially the same as in affirmative action litigation: "College admission should be based on merit and merit alone!" say the meritocracy police. Giving undue weight to other factors, in the minds of the plaintiffs, discriminates against any Asian student whose place is taken by an applicant with less impressive scores and transcripts. This same claim is made by many white students who are rejected in favor of supposedly less qualified black applicants.

Those who make these claims are convinced that students with better grades and/or higher SAT scores are inarguably more highly qualified, and that their rejection is thus a deep injustice.

In response to both litigation and general grousing, the primary defenses of affirmative action or holistic policies have been that 1) we have an obligation to remediate the debilitating consequences of centuries of racism by providing this generation's students of color a gesture of support; and 2) diversity is a powerful educational value, and the admission of a diverse class makes the educational experience more valuable for all.

These defenses are true and necessary, but they are insufficient. It is the traditional system of admission that is inequitable, deeply biased and unfair.

The plaintiffs in these actions and other opponents of affirmative action or holistic admissions commit a fundamental error. They ask the courts and society to passively stipulate that the traditional "acronym virtues" -- GPA, SAT, ACT, IQ, AP -- are, de facto, a reliable or infallible measure of merit. Therefore any system of admission that fails to honor these virtues is suspect. They have it exactly backwards. It is the traditional GPA, SAT, ACT, IQ, AP system that is suspect and fundamentally unfair.

Beginning in the 1970s, Harvard's Howard Gardner revitalized a central progressive notion: Humans are amazing in ways that are not captured on the traditional measures. In 1983 he codified his research in his seminal book Frames of Mind: Theory of multiple intelligences. Subsequent developments in neurobiology and other disciplines have affirmed his work, demonstrating that intelligence is much more complex than our antiquated understanding in terms of the "acronym virtues."

Many others have advanced the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) and traits like resilience and perseverance. While these observations can be faddish and overstated, they add to the understanding of the complexity of human intelligence and ability.

Gardner's book and related research should have transformed educational practice, including the way we measure "merit" and make decisions in college admissions. But they didn't.

The traditional system, clung to with anger and resentment by some opponents of holistic or affirmative admissions, is based almost entirely on a very conventional and woefully incomplete notion of intelligence. SAT, ACT, IQ and most AP courses and other assessments are reasonable, albeit imperfect, measures of only two -- linguistic and logical-mathematical -- of the eight intelligences Gardner has identified. For most of recent history, linguistic and mathematical ways of "being smart" have been privileged over all others. Most folks simply accept this without question, even if they are intelligent in different ways and have been denied recognition or opportunity as a result. They figure they really don't deserve any better or they sigh deeply and take their talents and accomplishments elsewhere.

Because this is our culture's default understanding of merit and intelligence, the arguments of "remediating racism and diversity as an educational value" have had limited success in defending more complex admission processes.

Perhaps it's time to go on the offense rather than play defense.

The so-called "holistic" approach is a much more accurate, and thus fairer, context in which to consider applicants. It allows consideration of empathy and imagination. It honors the brilliance of young folks who are intelligent in ways not captured on traditional gatekeeping tests. A holistic assessment values eccentricity, originality and cultural perspectives that are not valued or understood in majority-white, Western-centric institutions. It demands appreciation of those with exceptional visual acuity, interpersonal skills, spatial awareness or the ability to craft an unspeakably beautiful melody -- qualities that are not measured or, sometimes, not measurable.

We have been socialized into believing that these many other ways of being intelligent are lovely personality traits or ancillary interests but should only be taken into account after the initial culling by the "acronym virtues" has been completed.

What would college admission look like if we flipped this whole understanding and placed a premium on empathy or the ability to recognize and create things of great beauty? Wouldn't it be interesting if the "acronym virtues" were considered ancillary and might be used only as tie breakers when choosing between two dreamy poets or several eccentric mathematicians who eschew conventional algorithms?

Let's have a lawsuit where all the "different" learners, visionaries, poets, iconoclasts, artists and musicians come together and sue Harvard for giving illegal preference to applicants who brandish their relatively unimportant test scores.

That's a lawsuit I'd join.